Giving in hard times

April 30, 2003

WITH THE economy in the doldrums, Marylanders can expect charity fund-raisers to be ratcheting up their pitches for donations. Money is so tight that many groups can't rely on their usual sources of revenue.

The added pressure makes it particularly important for donors to know the organization they are dealing with. If a soliciting group's name, record and reputation are unfamiliar, avoid impulse giving. Do a bit of research; some shady operators are also competing for your generosity.

But the worthy causes need all the help they can get. The social safety net is full of holes and shrinking badly.

After years of rising contributions, the United Way of Central Maryland last year took in $3 million less than in 2001. The result: less money for its 127 member agencies' wide-ranging social and emergency programs.

The United Way conducts the state's largest annual solicitation campaign, but its experience is typical.

The whole nonprofit sector is reeling from the heavy pummeling of bad economic times. Individual and corporate donations are down. Even charitable foundations are curtailing grants to nonprofits because their endowments have taken substantial investment losses in the stock market.

All this comes at a time when the state's budget crisis has sharply reduced government grants and contracts to nonprofits in such critical areas as child care and health care. Yet demand for aid and services keeps rising, providers report.

Maryland's nonprofits have weathered tough times before. The 1989 to 1992 recession is still remembered as a trying period, but many groups rebounded stronger than before.

Since 1997, the state's nonprofit sector has grown by 42 percent to 18,846 organizations, each with its own needs and fund-raising goals. About 5,500 of those groups are big enough to have staffs. They include a variety of health care providers, research institutions, colleges and museums. Altogether, they employ 216,941 people, or 8.9 percent of Maryland's work force.

As funding dries up, consolidation appears unavoidable. "This is a time of high anxiety in the nonprofit community," reports Peter V. Berns of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations.

There is no better time to give than when the needs are great. But make sure you know where your dollars are going.

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